What is a Ryokan? Staying at a Traditional Japanese Inn

what is a ryokan

Konichiwa! Join me as we unravel the enchantment of ryokans, traditional Japanese inns that offer an authentic cultural experience like no other. From their rich historical roots to the etiquette and unique features, let’s immerse ourselves in the beauty of this extraordinary accommodation option. Let me guide you through the wonders of a ryokan and help you understand why it’s the perfect choice for a truly memorable stay in Japan.

Quick links to the best Ryokans:

What is a Ryokan? A Brief Historical Overview

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that dates back centuries. These charming establishments have preserved their authentic charm while adapting to modern times. Steeped in history and culture, ryokans were initially established to accommodate weary travelers along Japan’s ancient highways, providing them with a place to rest, refresh, and soak in the country’s rich traditions.

From the Edo period to the present day, ryokans have evolved to become a delightful blend of Japanese aesthetics, Zen philosophy, and warm hospitality. They offer an escape from the fast-paced modern world, transporting visitors to a serene oasis where time seems to slow down.

trip to japan

Planning a trip to Japan?

The Traditional Features of a Ryokan

As you step into a ryokan, prepare to be enchanted by its unique and distinctive features. These characteristics are what set ryokans apart from other accommodations and make them a truly authentic experience.

  1. Tatami-Matted Rooms: Get ready to embrace the traditional Japanese lifestyle as you step onto the soft, straw-covered floors of your room. Tatami mats create a warm and comfortable atmosphere, enhancing the overall experience.
  2. Futon Beds: Forget the conventional mattress and embrace the futon, a traditional Japanese bed that provides a cozy sleeping arrangement. These beds are typically laid out on the floor and meticulously prepared by the ryokan staff during evening turndown service.
  3. Sliding Doors: Delicate, paper-thin sliding doors, known as fusuma, create a seamless connection between rooms. These elegant doors can be opened or closed, allowing you to personalize your space and enjoy the peaceful ambiance.
  4. Onsen Baths: Ah, the epitome of relaxation! One of the most alluring features of a ryokan is the onsen, a communal hot spring bath. These mineral-rich waters offer a tranquil escape, soothing your body and mind. Remember, the onsen experience comes with its own set of etiquette, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Etiquette When Visiting a Ryokan

To truly immerse yourself in the ryokan experience, it’s important to be aware of the etiquette and customs that accompany it. Here are a few essential points to keep in mind:

  1. Removing Shoes: As you enter a ryokan, you’ll be greeted by a genkan, an entryway where shoes are removed. Slip into the provided slippers, and leave your outdoor footwear behind. Inside the ryokan, you may also find separate slippers for use in different areas, such as the bathroom or tatami-matted rooms.
  2. Yukata Attire: Embrace the opportunity to dress in a yukata, a traditional Japanese garment similar to but different from a kimono, during your stay. Typically provided by the ryokan, yukatas are lightweight robes that offer comfort and style. Wrap yourself in this cotton robe and revel in the feeling of stepping back in time.
  3. Onsen Etiquette: When visiting the onsen, there are a few rules to follow to ensure a harmonious experience for everyone. Before entering the bath, thoroughly wash your body at the provided washing area. Once clean, you can luxuriate in the soothing hot spring waters. Remember, the onsen is a place of relaxation, so maintain a serene atmosphere by refraining from loud conversations or using electronic devices.
  4. Dining Etiquette: A ryokan stay is incomplete without savoring a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal. When dining, be respectful of the food and the meticulous presentation. It’s customary to say “Itadakimasu” before starting your meal and “Gochisousama” to express gratitude after you’ve finished. Follow the lead of the staff when it comes to seating arrangements and dining etiquette including how to hold and use ohashi (chopsticks) and how to say oishii (delicious!).

The Ryokan Experience – From Check-In to Check-Out

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a journey through the ryokan experience, from the moment you check in to the bittersweet moment of checking out.

  1. Check-In: As you arrive at the ryokan, you’ll be warmly greeted by the staff, who will guide you through the check-in process. Expect a serene and unhurried atmosphere as you provide your information and receive your room key. The staff may also offer you a welcome tea or a refreshing towel to help you unwind from your journey.
  2. Settling into Your Room: Once you’ve received your key, it’s time to explore your abode for the duration of your stay. Take a moment to appreciate the minimalist beauty and attention to detail that surrounds you. Remove your shoes at the genkan, slip into your provided slippers, and step onto the tatami mats that cover the floor. Marvel at the elegant decor and soothing color schemes that create a sense of tranquility.
  3. Yukata and Amenities: In your room, you’ll find a yukata robe and other amenities, such as towels, toiletries, and tea-making facilities. Embrace the opportunity to dress in the yukata, tying the sash firmly around your waist. This comfortable attire will be your companion throughout your ryokan journey, whether you’re relaxing in your room or exploring the communal areas.
  4. Onsen Indulgence: The onsen beckons, offering a therapeutic experience like no other. Change into your yukata and head to the designated onsen area within the ryokan. Before entering the bath, follow the proper onsen etiquette we discussed earlier: wash your body thoroughly, ensuring cleanliness before immersing yourself in the healing waters. Allow the warm embrace of the onsen to melt away your stress and rejuvenate your body and soul.
  5. Kaiseki Delights: As evening approaches, it’s time to savor the exquisite kaiseki meal. Make your way to the dining area, where a meticulously prepared feast awaits you. Course after course of seasonal and locally sourced delicacies will be presented to you, each a work of art in its own right. Take your time, appreciate the flavors, and allow the culinary journey to transport you to new heights of gastronomic pleasure.
  6. Restful Slumber: After a day filled with relaxation and indulgence, it’s time to retire to your room for a restful night’s sleep. The ryokan staff will prepare your futon bed, ensuring a comfortable and peaceful sleep experience. Slip into the soft, cotton sheets and embrace the serenity of your surroundings as you drift off to dreamland.
  7. Morning Tranquility: Wake up to the gentle embrace of a new day in your ryokan. Open the sliding doors to let in the fresh air and natural light. Take a moment to appreciate the serene beauty that surrounds you. Before heading out for the day, enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast, featuring a delightful combination of grilled fish, rice, miso soup, pickles, and other seasonal delicacies.
  8. Farewell, Ryokan: Alas, all good things must come to an end. As you bid farewell to the ryokan, express your gratitude to the staff for their warm hospitality and attention to detail. Return your key and take a moment to reflect on the unforgettable experience you’ve had, carrying with you cherished memories of tranquility and cultural immersion.


What is a ryokan? It’s a portal to a bygone era, where tradition and tranquility merge to create an unforgettable experience. It’s a place where you can immerse yourself in Japanese aesthetics, indulge in the pleasures of an onsen, savor exquisite kaiseki cuisine, and discover the true meaning of hospitality.

A ryokan is more than just a place to stay; it’s a cultural journey. It’s an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and embrace a slower pace, where each moment is savored and appreciated. From the moment you step into a ryokan, you’ll be enveloped in a world of tradition, beauty, and mindfulness.

So, the next time you find yourself in Japan, make sure to experience the wonder of a ryokan. Indulge in the simple pleasures, let the serene ambiance wash over you, and create memories that will last a lifetime. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, cultural immersion, or a deeper understanding of Japanese traditions, a ryokan will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on your heart and soul.

A ryokan a glimpse into the essence of Japan—a captivating blend of history, hospitality, and tranquility. So, pack your yukata, prepare for a peaceful retreat, and embark on a ryokan adventure that will transport you to a world of timeless beauty.